Balaji Venkataramanan’s first novel, Flat-Track Bullies, was shortlisted for Crossword Book Award in 2015. Its protagonist, Ravi Venkatesan, was 11 years old and the plot unfolded during Ravi’s vacation. In his second novel, Pops!, Venkataramanan’s lead character is younger at seven years old. His name is V. Arun and we see the events unfolding in this novel through Arun’s eyes over a period of one year during which Arun comes to know about the eponymous Pops, his father who had separated from his mother and who he meets only after he has turned seven. In the time that he had he had not met his father, Arun had one lie over another ready for his teachers, friends, and anyone who asked him about his father: he told everyone that his father “[was] in the US, working as an engineer.” This lie was ingrained so deeply into Arun’s being that sometimes he too grew tired of it. Finally, he got to meet his father in the visiting centre in the Family Court where parents separated from each other came to meet their children.
Venkataramanan’s plot is poignant and touched me quite sharply. The first-person narration works very well and Venkataramanan’s words suit the narrator who is a boy of seven years.
Arun and his mother are well to do. Arun’s mother “[worked] in [a] big computer company, and she [earned] a lot of money…[and they] even had a car…[and the family] even went to Singapore [for a] summer vacation.” The privilege in Arun’s background shows in his narration; however, the writing is so smart that I, while reading some passages, rolled in laughter and, in some other passages, found myself thinking hard. When Arun’s mother comes to know that Arun’s father was not going to return to them anymore and she tearfully explains this to Arun, “[the] toy cars and chocolates [melted] away like ice cream” in Arun’s mind because his mother had lied to him that his father would bring him lots of toys and chocolates when he returned.
The situation is sad and difficult – a child not being able to see his father – but this has been written with such humour that I smiled and grew thoughtful at the same time.
The novel ably demonstrates the precociousness of young children in urban, moneyed, upwardly mobile families. Arun knows that sugar-free chewing gums are harmful for children and that iPads are expensive. Body-shaming among children has been tackled in this novel and also that insidious mental abuse small children are regularly subjected to at their schools by the support staff who might, quite unthinkingly, tease a child with nicknames or scare them. Arun and most other characters – Arun’s mother, her parents, Arun’s friends and teachers – are beautifully sketched, and I have this feeling that Venkataramanan had an absolute blast while writing the parts set in the visiting centre of the Family Court. Right from the illustrations of animals on the walls of the visiting centre to the various children –
“Running Nose”, “Rabbit-tooth Twins”, “motor mouth boys” – and adults Arun sees there, the writing here is rich in observations. When Arun first meets his father, a bearded man, Arun “stood like [a] deer in front of a tiger in [a] Discovery Channel video.” There are sentences in this part which are so true that they hurt. For example, after seeing two parents and their lawyers fighting in the courtroom, Arun sees the parents still fighting but their lawyers taking a break and having tea together. This makes Arun ask his mother: “Can that man and lady also become friends like [their respective lawyers]?”
The father’s character is lovingly drawn. He is sporty and smart, and I found myself liking this character. Written with empathy and keenly observed, Pops! is an engrossing read and I recommend it wholly. Tiny line drawings by Twiggy on each page of the book make reading it a delightful experience